CAVAN HOGUE. The ambassadorial minnow and the whale.

Australian angst about the failure of the US to send an ambassador to Australia reflects the nature of our relationship. Tim Fischer is right to see it as an insult but it should not surprise us. 

Tim Fischer has come out with a complaint about the fact that we still do not have an American ambassador from the Trump Administration. He, along with others, sees this as insulting or even demeaning but in fact it reflects the nature of our relationship with the USA.

As any diplomat will tell you, the quality of diplomatic staff sent to a foreign country normally reflects the importance of that country to the sending state. Australia sends very competent people to Washington. While the appointment of former cabinet ministers is sometimes criticised in the Australian media, they are usually successful in Washington – but of course they are backed up by senior diplomats.

The only time the US appointed a serious ambassador to Australia was when the highly professional Marshall Green was sent by President Nixon to deal with Gough Whitlam who was showing signs of undue independence. Normally we get people who have contributed to the winning president’s campaign funds but not enough to get a prestigious  job where they might have to actually do something. Nor is Australia a posting sought by ambitious high flyers in the State Department. The US Embassy in Canberra is much smaller than the Australian Embassy in Washington. Australian diplomats abroad often have close relationships with their American counterparts in places where we are seen as being knowledgeable which means Asia and the Pacific. Elsewhere the Americans are always courteous and friendly but little more than that.

On the military side, we send officers with a future to US military staff colleges whereas we usually get US officers who are going nowhere. Some even retire after attending an Australian staff college. We have officers embedded in the US military at quite senior levels. The military/intelligence relationship is much more important than the diplomatic one although in some cases the Americans are more interested in our flag than our troops. Just as General Macarthur kept Australians out of the operations where he wanted Americans to get the credit, so today Australians play a subsidiary role in any joint military operations.

Obviously all this reflects the nature of our relationship with the USA. The junior partner can never expect to have a strong influence on the senior partner’s decisions. A country which is joined at the hip to the USA can be taken for granted.

Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian diplomat and a graduate of the Australian Joint Services Staff College. He served mainly in Asia but  also in Europe and Latin America.

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